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So Are They All, All Honorable Men

CUNY won’t honor Tony Kushner; yet look at the people they will

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The decision of the City University of New York Board to deny an honorary doctorate to Tony Kushner due to his views on Israel is so blatantly wrong, so operatically idiotic, that the correct response initially feels like going nowhere near it. How, for example, is one to react to the statement by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—the conservative trustee who led the charge against Kushner—that he had learned of Kushner’s opinions from Norman Finkelstein’s website? Should one note that when making serious charges, it might be best to go beyond URLs and, say, read books, such as, say, Kushner’s own Wrestling with Zion, which, to all but the silliest or most hateful critics, is very far from being (I’m quoting Wiesenfeld here) “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the state of Israel”? This is all too painfully obvious.

Let me, then, try a different approach. Denying Kushner the honorary degree, Wiesenfeld acknowledged, could be said to have a chilling effect, but, he added, “I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness.” Rock on, sir! Let’s look at fairness, then. Let’s observe the 2005 Baruch College honoree, William F. Aldinger III? As the head of the predatory subprime lender Household International, Aldinger was sued by financial regulators and attorneys general of 19 states and the District of Columbia in 2002; he ended up paying $484 million in restitution, the largest settlement ever obtained by state AGs in any consumer protection case in American history.

Or what about the 2003 honorary degree bestowed on Dorothy Rabinowitz, one of very few journalists working for respectable news organizations who supported Juanita Broaddrick’s 1998 allegations that she had been raped by President Clinton two decades earlier. “To encounter this woman,” Rabinowitz wrote at the time, “to hear the details of her story and the statements of the corroborating witnesses, was to understand that this was in fact an event that took place.” In fact, no court or other official investigation could ever prove this took place. You may file such wild and baseless drivel under “disingenuous” and “non-intellectual.”

Honorable, too, is Alan Dershowitz (Brooklyn College honorary doctorate, 2008), whose public statements on Israel—such as claiming that “the fault for all civilian casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies exclusively with the Palestinian terrorists”—frequently fail to meet the rigid standards of accuracy any self-respecting academic institution should fiercely defend. At the very, very least—and the very, very least is often the most we have any right to expect these days—one could hardly accuse Kushner of being substantially further away from the center of the spectrum of views on the Mideast conflict than Dershowitz is.

Rather than merely cry McCarthyism, as Kushner justifiably has, let us instead follow the example of one of our more renowned scholars of the McCarthy period, Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker. “I assume that no one within CUNY’s Board of Trustees or administration wants a repeat of those dark days,” she wrote yesterday, returning her honorary CUNY degree in protest of the Kushner affair. Let us demand answers from this public institution. Let us ask why narrow-mindedness was so effortlessly allowed to triumph over scholarship and introspection. And let us demand (with former Mayor Ed Koch) the immediate removal of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld from the Board of Trustees. Anything less would be just another act in the farce.

Earlier: Kushner Denied Honorary Degree

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Tony Kushner will be receiving an honorary degree at Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA on May 22. He is also the main speaker. I will be there.

ralph says:

let me put my thoughts in a simple way. forget the pretty words. the extreme left is wrong. history shows it. they are as authoritarian as the extreme right. there is no difference. they meet. the half circle idea of left on one side right on the other and never the twain shall meet is a false dichotomy. the left meanwhile today is dangerous, self deluding and plain wrong in its analysis.

people like kushner and his supporters are dangerous, wrong, delusional and must be shown the door, they do not belong in polite company. i have no philosophical or moral or political reason to exclude him and his ilk.

babawawa says:

I’m with Ralph. The moral outrage shown in this article is akin to hearing people say so and so was a nicer Nazi. Kushner is anti-Israel – he stands with the crowd that would like to destroy the nation. Sorry you feel that he has the right to his opinion and the rest of us should just suck it up. Of course when you don’t get your way you demand people be dismissed. What, Wiesenfeld doesn’t have the right his opinion? It’s an honorary degree, not an earned one. The left, on Israel, is wrong. And so is the author of this piece. CUNY stand firm.

Most of this rant is typical of far left posturing but the writer’s blast at Dorothy Rabinowitz is beyond the pale of legitimate criticism. Dorothy is an incisive clear headed analyst of cultural mores whose essays make far more sense than this biased blast by someone stuck in the moldering grave of long dead ideologies.

zohra masoudi says:

I am afraid this sort of harsh reaction to even mild criticism of Israel is typical nowadays of cultural life in American universities. Jewish Studies departments are increasingly cleansing themselves of any members whose enthusiasm for Zionism is felt to be lukewarm.

M. Brukhes says:

As much as I hate to admit it, and it really pains me to say this out loud, I agree completely, totally, and 100% with Liel Leibovitz in this posting: CUNY has a right to bestow honorary degrees on whom it sees fit, and/but, having made the decision to award Kushner a degree, to bow to political pressure and withdraw the honor stinks of McCarthyism, pure and simple. To attach a political litmus test for academic awards or distinctions can only result in injury to academic or other forms of intellectual freedom. I can only hope and assume that every reader of TABLET opposes the arbitrary and racist calls to boycott academic figures merely on the basis of their status as Israeli citizens. In our efforts to support the State of Israel, we should not duplicate the tactics of our sleaziest opponents. Tony Kushner is being recognized for his enormous gifts as a writer, not for his coincident opinions on contemporary Israeli politics (which are not nearly as extreme as the CUNY board has been suckered into believing). He has earned this award, and if CUNY can be bullied into withdrawing it, they can potentially be bullied into withdrawing it from anyone.

By the same token, the late Paddy Chayevsky was well within his rights to criticize Vanessa Redgrave for politicizing her Oscar speech in 1978–and Redgrave’s anti-Zionism, it may be noted, is far more hateful and extreme than Kushner’s politics are. But having awarded Redgrave an Oscar for her acting, the Academy had no choice but to go home with the date they arrived with. Having announced the award to Kushner, CUNY has to honor its commitments, or else the awards they presume to bestow lack even the symbolic merit of good intentions.

This is a serious error in their judgment, and Leibovitz is correct in pointing to its intellectual weakness and shabbiness. If CUNY wishes to “stand firm” as babawawa says, they can only do so by living up to their original commitment to Kushner.

Shmuel says:

Liel – why so cynical? many think Kushner has gone too far & is way too anti-Israel. But here you are…..making sure to stick up for him.

Too bad.

This is how an institution dedicated to truth operates? I’m with Leibovitz on this one.

H/Ramat-Gan/Israel says:

Ellen Schrecker the stalinists white washer, what a great moral authority you found to defend Kushner NOT

Flo says:

Ralph and Babawawa are right. Why should we support people who – whether through misguided ideas or malicious ones – seek our demise. It’s suicidal.

Very well-stated, M. Brukhes. Whatever your opinion of the politics of Kushner, Leibovitz, or Wiesenfeld, the handling of this contentious issue was unprofessional and disgraceful.

elliot cohen says:

So is this the guy that made Ethel Rosenberg the source of maternal comfort in his play?

Dave says:

I really wanted to comment on Leil’s ridiculous post, but I couldn’t say it any better than Jonathan Tobin:

Whether this was a good decision by CUNY’s board or not, Leil’s response is repugnant (the attack on Dershowitz is unbelievably dishonest). Tablet would do well by ceasing to publish Leil’s drivel altogether (trust me, nobody is going to miss his commentary on the parsha – if I want to hear a shallow, solipsistic take on the Torah I can just talk to a child; Leil hasn’t advanced any further). While I’m at it, I have to ask, who’s decision is it to keep Auslander as a contributor? Anger toward parents and upbringing has launched many a literary career, but at some point talent has to come into the equation.

Susan Zuckerman says:

What is repugnant to me, is when a Jew is anti his own people.
It’s wonderful to be liberal and I was brought up that way,
but before we help others, we must help ourselves. How can a Jew be anti Israel? Would he prefer that we all had died in the furnaces? At least we know we have a country and an army
and can defend ourselves against all enemies. (Including fellow Jews).

As someone with a profound love of Israel, I find one-sided criticism as alarming as jingoistic support of the state. But like Kushner, I shouldn’t have to first present my pro-Israel bona fides to be acknowledged. There are two alarmingly disturbing issues here with the revocation of Kushner’s award. First, the award was presumably being given to an American artist for his art. In terms of Kushner’s playwrighting, he has made as indelible a mark on American theatre (and culture) as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. The award wasn’t for his MidEast commentary, it was for his art. He has not used his art as a vehicle to promote his opinions on Israel – they are separate and not on any level of equal dissemination as his art. To put it another way, this wasn’t someone giving a painting award to Adolph Hitler, whose crimes against humanity far overshadowed his “artistic ability”. This wasn’t an award for Middle East political thought for Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky. IT WAS IRRELEVANT. Second, and of far more importance: THIS IS A UNIVERSITY. It is supposed to be a haven for dissenting opinion, for debate, for discussion. I find the whole boycott-divestment movement thoroughly disgusting and anti-academic – and I’m sorry to say, this is just the other side of the same coin. It’s a complete embarrassment for CUNY.

Sing it, Liel. It’s pathetic that we’re even HAVING this conversation. Read the man’s work. Even if you still think he’s an Israel-hating, Jew-hating vile human being, the fact that CUNY did this without doing anything beyond taking the word of one trustee, not allowing Kushner to explain his own positions or say a word in his own defense — this is NUTBALLS. Flo, if you actually READ KUSHNER’S WORDS you would know he absolutely supports Israel’s right to exist. Great googly moogly, my fellow yehudim.

Dave says:

Here’s a good survey of Kushner’s views in his own words:

I know Leil thinks we have to read his book to get the true picture of his views on Israel, but I think the man’s own statements sum his views up nicely.

I don’t even care about the CUNY controversy; it’s Leil’s attempt to paint Kushner’s anti-Israel views as somehow complex or intellectual that I find offensive. Of course Leil has a dog in that fight.

Dave says:

Marjorie, click on my link and “READ KUSHNER’S WORDS.” He may have deserved the degree and CUNY may be in the wrong, but the guy is nothing if not “Israel-hating”.

MonkFish says:

It’ simple: CUNY has taken a page from the BDS campaign’s manual of dishonest, intolerant, hysterical activism. Bit hypocritical for the boycotters to whine when they are themselves the target of a boycott, isn’t it Mr Liebowitz?
Regardless, CUNY should have chosen to uphold academic freedom that the BDS are so intent on curtailing.

MSBrown says:

Tony Kushner’s own response to the CUNY Board says it
best. His complex views on Israel were not examined seriously and he was trashed for not toeing the AIPAC/conservative line. He makes clear he opposes Boycott, for example.
That being said, none of the above should have been considered, in the granting of this degree for Kushner’s
indisputable talents and contribution to contemporary
literature and intellectual dialogue.
Further, CUNY is a public institution and not a locus
for airing the unfortunate infighting among New York Jews.

David says:

Who gives a shit either way if a some multimillionare writer gets an honorary degree or not?

Don’t you clowns have more important things to worry about?

Allan Leicht says:

An honorary degree for Tony Kushner from the Yale Drama School might be justified, but from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice it would be grotesque. Mr. Kushner’s defamation of Israel and Jews has been libelous. What Mr, Kushner really needs as regards his relationship to Israel is a month’s community service in Does Tablet have a correspondent in Sderot?

M. Brukhes says:

David, you ask “Don’t you clowns have more important things to worry about?”

Obviously, YOU don’t…!

Steve says:

Conveniently forgotten are the words of the invading armies in 1948, captured on tape and in UN documents telling resident Arabs to leave or be considered as collaborators. They could return after and claim the Jews lands and possessions.

As Kushner pointed out in his own statement to the CUNY Trustees: Weisenfield grossly misrepresented Kushner’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I disagree with some of Kushner’s views, he has repeatedly stated his opposition to boycotts and his support for Israel’s continued right to exist. He has also stated that he supports a two-state solution to the the conflict (which, in principle, is also the position of the Israeli government.)

The point is that, while Kushner might very well be wrong on a good number of things, he’s not “anti-Israel.”

David S says:


I beg to differ.

I worry about what you think of me.

It keeps me up at night.

DRW says:

Kushner must be chortling. This is the best thing that’s happened for him in years. He couldn’t pay for such publicity. Such persecution.. such censorship! Woe is us!

Lillianf says:

I did follow the link Ian Thal provides, the letter from Kushner to the CUNY trustees. Kushner is incredibly confused about what he thinks regarding Israel. He questions “the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state” and even offers the outrageous slander that “the forced removal of Palestinans from their home as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing.” Yet he claims to believe in “Israel’s right to exist,” and even reiterates that Israel’s continued existence is his “ardent wish.” He proclaims that “democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation”–yet if that were true of Israel, in what sense would it be Jewish? Who would populate the Israel for which Kushner ardently wishes?
The man should stick to writing plays and keep his mouth shut about political issues.

I do think Kushner’s views represent a great deal of ambivalence on certain points that Lillian brings up, yet, the point is that that in light of his conflicting feelings on certain points, he’s not anti-Israeli.

Binyamin in O says:

Like the prophets themselves, Kushner is a scorned man. Of course Israel was created by an ethnic cleansing. So was the U.S. Now what do we do? Hint: Native Americans are full and equal citizens of our nation.

Of course, let’s be clear as to Benny Morris’ conclusions (as best as I understand them):

He does identify specific instances of ethnic cleansing, but finds no evidence that they were part of an organized plan, rather that they were conducted by individual units acting on their own accord (and has thus spent time debunking false claims of ethnic cleansing, such as those suggested by Illan Pappé.)

Morris also notes that in comparison to other well known ethnic cleansings, such as those during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, that these were actually quite small in scale.

Morris also concludes that these war crimes, while in fact, crimes, were necessitated by the stated intent of the opposing armies to commit a complete genocide of the Jewish population.

These are the conclusions upon which Kushner bases his own views. They’re not pleasant conclusions just as the facts he bases the conclusions upon are not pleasant. Indeed, they are quite controversial, but they by no means make Morris (or Kushner, by extension) “anti-Israel.”

Once more an epic clash of narratives plays out in Tablet’s comments. The stern and punishing patriarch tries to root out and smite heretics and traitors. If they don’t exist he will invent them. Deviation is unacceptable. Compassion and tolerance are weakness. Imagination is dangerous. On the other hand, some of us hold to another story — one told by Buber, Achad Ha’am, Heschel, among others — that hatred can never vanquish hatred, that our people’s true strength comes from its moral vision and its inexhaustible creativity and inclusiveness, which qualities Kushner’s work exemplifies. In other words, right on, Liel! Much gratitude for your great heart and fine writing.

Alter says:

Reading both sides of the argument, it seems to me that those in favor of denying Kushner the degree have not made their case at all. Elizabeth Schwartz, above, makes an airtight argument in favor of awarding the degree:
Elizabeth Schwartz says:
May 6, 2011 at 1:13 PM
“As someone with a profound love of Israel, I find one-sided criticism as alarming as jingoistic support of the state. But like Kushner, I shouldn’t have to first present my pro-Israel bona fides to be acknowledged. There are two alarmingly disturbing issues here with the revocation of Kushner’s award. First, the award was presumably being given to an American artist for his art. In terms of Kushner’s playwrighting, he has made as indelible a mark on American theatre (and culture) as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. The award wasn’t for his MidEast commentary, it was for his art. He has not used his art as a vehicle to promote his opinions on Israel – they are separate and not on any level of equal dissemination as his art. To put it another way, this wasn’t someone giving a painting award to Adolph Hitler, whose crimes against humanity far overshadowed his “artistic ability”. This wasn’t an award for Middle East political thought for Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky. IT WAS IRRELEVANT. Second, and of far more importance: THIS IS A UNIVERSITY. It is supposed to be a haven for dissenting opinion, for debate, for discussion. I find the whole boycott-divestment movement thoroughly disgusting and anti-academic – and I’m sorry to say, this is just the other side of the same coin. It’s a complete embarrassment for CUNY.”

Dani Levi says:

I just came over from , to this great thread. Boy, did I miss Tablet.
If Kushner is right as quoted, I think Israelis should move back to Germany and the USA. I mean the dude is with JVP super antizionist, and he did give of that platitude about ethnic cleansing. Is this mainstream thinking these days in New York? I mean is it all ova Tova or what?
Seriously great thread. I love you !
Liel’s piece was predictable, I have to say. But you made him pay for it.
This honorable doctor thing is totally gay btw.

Doug G. says:

C’mon, Liel, you can ‘fess up. This is not about McCarthyism or fairness at all, is it? You just agree with Kushner and you disagree with Dershowitz. That’s cool. But at least have the guts to say so.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Kushner. Oh, no. Just because I call him a political jackass and a useful idiot for Islamic terrorists; just because I encourage my friends and family and all other decent human beings to boycott his plays and lectures, to picket all of his appearances and to apply sanctions to all theaters and institutions where he or his work appears; just because I encourage everyone I know to send a letter of support to John Jay College for their courageous decision — doesn’t mean I’m anti-Kushner. He has some literary talents which should be admired. But how can we expect him to improve if we don’t express our criticism in a way that makes itself really felt. That’s tough love, baby.

David from Boston says:

Tony Kushner is free to demonize Israel, and remain silent about the persecution of gays and women throughout the Arab world. However, he is not entitled to get a cry when a CUNY Trustee correctly points out that Kushner falsely engages in hate speech about Israel. Sorry Tony, your abhorrent record speaks for itself. Your hypocrisy is overwhelming. You are undeserving of an honorary degree. You can’t hide from your record of standing with those people who seek to harm the State of Israel.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

It has been obvious for some time where Liel Lebowitz stands and Tony Kushner adds to the Jews who help increase anti-semitism and anti-Israel. He is no different than Pat Buchanan.

It is also obvious that Kushner has never been in touch with Holocaust survivors and their lives. Easy to be against Jews who live in dangerous places when one lives in a safe area, whether with a doorman or in a gated community and can walk down the street not having to see if a suicide bomber is behind you, only a mugger.

It is sad that the Jews who gave up Judaism for liberalism are now the ones we have to be scared of and not the Nazis. They are no different as they will destroy this country with their socialist ideas and help Obama destroy the tiny Jewish State of Israel.

We do not see any telethons to help the poor state who takes in all the refugees running from their oppressive countries. Only for others do Jews like Kushner speak out for but probably he is not really Jewish and we can just call him an anti-semite.

david says:

As I read these comments and reflect on the current decision by CUNY to withdraw Kushner’s honor I am reminded of “sinat chinam”. There is a trope that is growing in the Jewish community, by those who care very much about the Jewish people, to find “blasphemers” and castigate them. The irony is that many of those labeled as “blasphemers” are also people who care very much for the Jewish people. This gets me back to “sinat chinam”, meaning baseless hatred. This is considered to have been so rampant and so toxic that it was the reason that the Second Temple was destroyed. It was this kind of hatred of Jew against Jew that disintegrated the Jewish commonwealth. I ask all those who have written for this blog and those who castigate each other for holding different points of view look seriously at themselves.

Kushner outlined his views in his open letter. His views are not above criticism. However, his views have been grossly misrepresented.

Kushner is someone who has strong moral sensibilities and is greatly troubled that what is necessary often involves moral compromise. Chomsky and Finkelstein are moral nihilists who would plunge the world into greater violence to redeem it of lesser violence. Not the same thing.

Kushner is no Finkelstein; Kushner is no Chomsky.

Hersh Adlerstein says:

What’s the real issue here? I recall the old Jewish joke about the couple who come to the rabbi for marriage counselling. The wife tells her woes, and the rabbi says “You’re right”. The husband gives his side, and again the rabbi says “You’re right”. The rebbitzen listens and turns to her husband and asks “How can you tell them they’re both right”, to which the rabbi answers “You’re right too”. Sounds to me that this debate needs an intelligent arbiter, but none of the commentators fill that bill.

And, of course, the punchline to Mr Adlerstein’s comment above would be: “You’re wrong!”

Thanks to David for the trenchant observation on “sinat chinam”

Herb Beim says:

Dear Liel, Yo are off your rocker. Kushner accused Israel of ethnic cleansing because it wants to protect it’s people from the rape and muder that would occur, should the Arabs gain military superity. Liel………you know that would happen to you and your family just as it did in Itamar and to Shalhevet Pass. So wipe your tears and come back to reality. Kushner is a real Jerk and you are not far behind.

Kushner’s claims are based on those of the respected historian, Benny Morris. Morris does argue that in 1948, Israel was fighting a war of survival under threat of genocide. Morris also says sees evidence that in the process some Israeli units committed war crimes. Morris does not see this as invalidating the necessity of Israel’s defensive actions in 1948.

Ezekiel says:

The accusation of Israel of Ethnic Cleansing is slender. Israel, with a large and thriving Arab minority, obviously did a very lousy ethnic cleansing job, if it ever contemplated one. On the other end of the spectrum, the entire Jewish existence in the Middle East – outside of Israel – has been erased with resounding success by Israel’s Arab neighbors. Communities in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, which thrived for centuries before Muhammad was born, are gone. The leaders of these countries did a better job than Hitler, yet they are completely guilt free. Today, continuing on the same shameless path, the Palestinians demand that any peace agreement with Israel would be predicated on the Ethnic Cleansing of all Jews within their territory!
Alan Dershowitz is right. If you hold Israel to impossible moral standards; if you perpetuated falsehoods lifted from questionable sources without trying to corroborate them; if you defend a blood libel such as the “Seven Jewish Children,” etc., then you are an Anti-Semite. It may be a mild case of fashionable, Lefty Anti-Semitism, but it still reeks.

The purpose of an honorary degree is to bestow recognition for academic and intellectual honesty and achievement. If the recipient distorts history and reality to suit their own political purpose why bestow the degree? Where Kushner is concerned there is no honesty beyond his own self-importance. While Kushner in a democracy has a right to produce his drivel and say what he wants, it does not mean that a respected institution has to provide him with a platform or the respect that an honorary degree would denote.That others in the academic community provide him with a platform only shows how academia is devoid of any moral authority.

Ezekiel, you are correct that most Arabs living in within Israel in 1948 chose to stay where they were. Benny Morris, though he found examples of ethnic cleansing, was also clear to point out that they were isolated incidents involving individual units in individual villages– and neither a coordinated effort, nor on the scale of the ethnic cleansing in 1990s Bosnia nor on the scale of the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab lands in the same time period. The point, however, is that some things did happen, and can be corroborated. I’m not clear that Kushner sees Morris’ work in the right perspective though.

Shout out to Dani Levi: Calling someone or something “totally gay” kinda tells us where you stand on bigotry and intolerance.

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So Are They All, All Honorable Men

CUNY won’t honor Tony Kushner; yet look at the people they will

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